Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Fasting, Abstinence and Compassion

It's Traddy Tuesday, and so a good time to repeat that the traditional fasting and abstinence laws are not only penitential, they are good for human health. As I am not a doctor, you can take what follows solely as an amateur's enthusiasm.

The best known contemporary proponent of fasting is Dr. Michael Mosley whose 2013 "Fast Diet" propelled a fasting craze among dieters so widespread that the expression "5/2" is a household expression in the UK. The diet is popular because it assures dieters that they need only restrict their calorie consumption twice a week and "just eat normally" on the other days. When the dieter has achieved his or her goal weight,  he or she is expected to restrict calorie consumption only once a week--but for the rest of his or her life. The dieter can pick whatever day he or she wants to fast in, so naturally Friday comes to mind.

Dr Mosley claims that the health benefits of intermittent fasting include protection against diabetes, dementia and cancer, which makes me think of stories about monks and nuns who live very long and healthy lives.

This year's Mosley diet craze is called the "Low Blood Sugar Diet", which regular readers all know about, since I am on it. In this diet, the poor dieter is supposed to get by on 800 calories a day, every day, for eight weeks--a bit longer than Lent---and abstain from sugar, white bread and anything made from white flour. As most prepared foods--even stock cubes, I discovered to my chagrin--now include sugar, the dieter eats a surprisingly natural diet.

Sugar is so terrible for you, it turns out that giving up sweets and puddings for Lent was a very good and useful discipline after all.

What does not jive with tradition is the inclusion of meat in both diets. Vegetarians (and those who abstain from meat on Fridays) can still follow them, of course, as long as they consume enough vegetable protein in place of the necessary meat protein. Meat-eaters will probably find themselves consuming smaller amounts of meat, so as not to eat too many calories. (I see that there are 239 calories in 100 g of chicken, which is how much chicken I consumed in Sunday's chicken soup. Weighing your food is important in calorie-reduced diets.) Meat-eaters will consume less meat if they give thought also to animal welfare and consume only those birds and animals who were raised humanely, for their meat is rather more expensive than the meat of their less fortunate brethren. However, there are ways around the expense, and you can shop like a traditional grandma, looking for the "cheaper cuts" of  ethical meat, which turn out to be even more flavoursome than the expensive cuts, if you cook them properly.

Naturally there are convents and monasteries where the monks and nuns never or almost never consume animal flesh, which is something to consider, and I do consider that at Lent. A low-carb, sugar-free, meat-free Lent strikes me as challenging, but it's still Pentecost, so I shall put that thought aside. Meanwhile, Lent at the Historical House can never be fish-free, for my husband has put his foot down on that. (He's from Dundee. He cannot cope without the flesh of something.)

I suspect we would all be better off at a healthy weight, eating a healthy number of calories, with some fasting (e.g. on Friday) to ensure we aren't going overboard on the calories and then some periodic long-term fasting or abstinence from sugar and other unhealthy foods (e.g. fast food, ready-meals) during Advent and Lent. There is quite a range of "healthy weight", I see from the NHS's BMI tool. Apparently someone my age and height has a 30 lb range to play with. Thus if I, being at a healthy weight, were to lose a bit of weight during Lent, and then gained it back before Advent, I should think it no big deal. Meanwhile, there is always a bit of suffering in not eating tasty things you would really like to eat, so there is the necessary Lenten penitential component. Learning to live with discomfort is a crucial Christian discipline.

There is another spiritual challenge involved in successfully returning to a healthy weight, and it is refusing to feel smug and judgmental about one's overweight neighbours.  After all, it turns out that to return to a healthy weight you don't even need to spend money for a gym membership, trainer or club. You just need to reduce calories and stuff as much nutrition as possible in every calorie you do eat. It would seem that anyone could do that, so why don't they? And surely that almost spherical young Polish woman on the Rough Bus didn't arrive in the UK that way? What would her grandmother say? Tsk, tsk, tsk.

The cure for such self-congratulation and small-mindedness is a book called Fat Planet: The Obesity Trap and How to Escape It. It begins with the female co-author getting into a fat suit and living as an obese woman in England for a day. Not only was she incredibly physically uncomfortable, people kept staring at her and making rude remarks. It left her thoroughly depressed. Many obese people are depressed and one easy way to feel better is through comfort eating. Some people get addicted to comfort eating, but naturally to get the "high", as with all drugs, they have to eat more and more. Incidentally, some nutritionists think chocolate should be reclassified as a drug.

Meanwhile, Fat Planet makes a very good case that the overweight and obese are only marginally responsible for their predicament. In short, society is to blame. This is a society that seriously messes with our natural cues regarding food consumption through advertising, food additives, and delicious smells cynically pumped into the air. If the High Street were all clothing shops, it would be much easier to maintain a healthy weight than if the High Street didn't feature a dozen fast food restaurants, cafés, pie shops and bakeries. Whenever we watch television or walk down a shopping street or in a mall, we are barraged by subtle messages of "EAT. EAT. EAT."  A current McDonald's advert on UK TV is selling McDonald's as a locus of family-, friend- and even first romantic love. Well, it certainly may be, but only because it has spent a gazillion dollars of advertising itself that way.

In the United Kingdom, there used to be strong cultural conventions about when it was time to eat. If you were a working-class person (and we would most of us be working-class people), you had your supper (or "tea") at 6 PM. If you were a woman of leisure, you might not eat until 8 PM, which explains the popularity of the 4 PM meal, called "afternoon tea", invented by the Duchess of Bedford in 1840. At its inception consisted only of tea, bread and butter.  Meanwhile, snacking was not a thing. I have just discovered that in the USA snack foods were once considered shameful.  I suppose children have always consumed sweets and snacks when they could get them (robbing apple orchards, etc.), but adults weren't supposed to do that.

However, traditional conventions regarding self-control in the UK have thoroughly broken down, as you can see on the High Street of any British city any Friday or Saturday night, and so UK residents, whatever our origin, are in danger of becoming fat, drunk, and chased around a table in Marseilles by a fascistic Russian wielding a metal chair leg.* The best way to prevent this is by cultivating self-control though the traditional tools of fasting and abstinence.

*Update: Okay, some people won't find that funny. Naturally it was not the fault of the majority of the English fans who were set upon by Russian football hooligans. However, it may have been the English reputation for hooliganism that led to the apparently premeditated attack. Is this reputation out-of-date? I was in German during the FIFA 2006 World Cup tournament, and English fans behaved atrociously. It was if English civilisation had completely collapsed, and somehow it was 594 AD again.


  1. Mmm, great points about fasting!!

    Although, re: Fat Planet, I have to wonder if maybe those people who were staring and making comments were doing so because wearing a fat suit looks weird? Not that it excuses rude comments, but . . . strange thing to do!

  2. Well, she did it for science. The book never suggests anyone guessed she was wearing a fat suit. But I suppose that is a possibility!

    1. I've just never seen any not-obese person wearing a fat suit didn't look very odd (because their face, etc. isn't fat), but maybe she didn't!! I have no idea what she looks like, so it could have looked more natural on her.

  3. How are you finding sleeping patterns? Mine have gone haywire since I cut down on the food and out with the processed food. I smiled seeing you write robbing in that post, it seems a very British way of saying it. Is that the Canuck verb or do ye usually say steal/thieve? How many years are you in Scotland now Seraphic?


  4. My sleeping is good, especially when I get lots of exercise and fresh air, as I did on this walking holiday!

    "Robbing" is a good word as it stands on its own. You can "rob" an orchard, but you have to "steal from" it. The fewer words, the better, when you regularly have to write to a word maximum.

    I have now lived in Scotland for seven years. Golly.